By John Helmer, Moscow
When Nathaniel Rothschild sued for libel in the UK High Court in 2011, he was claiming that a report in the Daily Mail, published by Associated Newspapers on May 22, 2010, had libelled him for reporting that he had taken Peter Mandelson on a private jet-plane trip to Moscow to eat with Oleg Deripaska, then a banya with same, plus more eating, talking, and sight-seeing in the Siberian smelter town of Abakan. The reported events had occurred in January of 2005. The circumstances suggested a conflict of interest on Mandelson’s part, the newspaper angled. Rothschild went to court to prove that he would never do such a thing to a friend (Mandelson), and that it was defamation of his character to suggest he might. That was the first sting.
The second sting came in Justice Sir Richard Tugendhat’s judgement in the case, issued on February 10, 2012. After analysing Rothschild’s written evidence, listening to him in the witness box, and hearing the newspaper’s submissions, the judge ruled that Rothschild was not believable. He suffered memory loss, Tugendhat ruled; he withheld the truth. Also, he was an ingratiating companion when it came to making money for himself, and among his boon companions, money was possibly his fondest. From simple-wittedness, naivety, or from calculation — Tugendhat didn’t choose – Rothschild had exposed Mandelson to a charge of conflict of interest, when he should have known better. By publishing the innuendo, despite mistakes of fact, changes of story and claim, the judge ruled there was sufficient justification on the Daily Mail’s part; insufficient defence on Rothschild’s part to have been defamed by error or malice.
Mandelson had been the European Commissioner for Trade at the time of the Russian jaunt. He didn’t testify in Rothschild’s case, and in subsequent media outings he denies the conflict. Deripaska’s part in the affair, which began at Rothschild’s cottage in Davos, continued at a Moscow restaurant, and ended in Abakan (Khakassia region), covered business deals in Russian aluminium and Russian gold; he was not tested in the proceedings.
According to Tugendhat, “Mr Rothschild’s conduct was inappropriate in a number of respects…that conduct foreseeably brought Lord [Peter] Mandelson’s public office and personal integrity into disrepute and exposed him to accusations of conflict of interest, and it gave rise to the reasonable grounds to suspect that Lord Mandelson had engaged in improper discussions with Mr Deripaska about aluminium.”
The new judgement, dismissing Rothschild’s appeal, was issued on March 19. It was written by Lord Justice Sir John Laws. Short notes of concurrence are attached by Lord Justice Sir Richard McCombe and Sir David Eady. Because some of the reported facts of a dinner in Moscow, attended by Alcoa and Rusal, turned out to be wrong, Rothschild appealed on the ground that the sting of the story had no justification, and that he had been defamed. This has now been rejected for the second time. “Once the proved instance of the general charge – the Siberia trip – is understood against the whole background of the evidence,” wrote Laws, “Mr Rothschild had no more reputation to lose by the false tale of the Alcoa dinner.”
The Court of Appeal is also negative towards Mandelson. Quoting Tugendhat, “ ‘nothing in this judgment should be taken as a criticism by me of anyone who is not a party to the action. That would not be fair…” the judge was plainly right to say so. But the narrative of the case, founded on the evidence accepted by the judge, must inevitably throw light on the conduct and character of participants in the relevant events…I [Laws] should note also, if only for completeness and because Lord Mandelson is not a party to these proceedings, that the judge did not accept the submission that the article alleged there were grounds to suspect Lord Mandelson of corruption; only error of judgment (see paragraph 31).”
As for Rothschild’s character, the latest court ruling adds to the weight of the millstone Tugendhat and the Daily Mail have put around his neck. According to Laws, “the sting of meaning (b) is the implicit accusation that Mr Rothschild was prepared to use his long-standing friendship with Lord Mandelson as a means by which ‘to impress and keep close to him Mr Deripaska’ – and in doing so should have foreseen that he would ‘bring Lord Mandelson’s public offices and personal integrity into disrepute…’ (see meaning (a)(1)). The Alcoa dinner was an example of this. ANL’s [the newspaper’s] case is that the Siberian trip was another… their sting is in the context; and the context reveals a web of relationships – Mr Rothschild, Lord Mandelson, Mr Deripaska – which indeed shows the appellant’s determination ‘to impress and keep close to him Mr Deripaska’, and to do it by facilitating close contact with Lord Mandelson. Mr Price [for Rothschild] does not as I understand it seek to challenge the judge’s findings which, in essence, supply this context. If he does, the challenge is baseless: the judge was in full command of the evidence.”
After the Tugendhat ruling last year, Rothschild said through a spokesman: “I am disappointed with today’s ruling, although I do not regret bringing the action…Lord Mandelson’s trip to Russia was entirely recreational – as the court has accepted – and Lord Mandelson had obtained clearance for the trip from his office before undertaking it.” There has been no response from him yet on the Court of Appeal ruling.